This post is for fiction writers thinking about submitting their work to Indiana Review. We receive somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000 fiction submissions each year, and I spend a good deal of my time digging through those submissions to separate the bad stories from the good-and-potentially-great stories. So I thought I’d offer some insight into how I decide which stories make it out of our slush pile and which are rejected quickly.
Some stories are easy to reject. I’m always amazed by the number of stories we receive with typos, grammatical errors, incorrectly punctuated dialogue, and other glaring mistakes in the opening pages. Those stories almost always get dumped right away. Same goes for stories with blatantly racist, homophobic, or misogynistic language in the opening pages. If, for instance, a female character is introduced on the first page and all we learn about her is the color of her hair and the size/shape of her breasts, I’m unlikely to read the second page.
I also reject certain stories from our slush pile not because they’re poorly written, but simply because I read the first three or four pages and say to myself, “I’ve read this story before.” There are a few recurring subjects that come up in so many of our submissions that they verge on clichés, and it’s rare for stories that deal with these subjects to distinguish themselves from the crowd of stories in the slush pile. That’s not to say that these subjects can’t make for fine stories; it’s just that I rarely come across unique takes on these subjects.
The three types of stories I most often reject because I feel like I’ve read them before:
1. “The Sad Garage Sale”
These stories take place in the aftermath of a death or divorce and follow the main character(s) as he/she/they get rid of the dead or departed person’s things. The most common variations of this story type involve a) parents selling the clothing and toys of a deceased child, b) siblings selling the furniture and personal effects of a deceased parent, or c) someone selling his/her ex’s albums, books, or whatever. The major problem with “The Sad Garage Sale” stories is that they too often seem to assume that the situation alone is enough to evoke an emotional reaction in the reader. As a result, these stories frequently suffer from a lack of character development and static narratives with little to no plot movement. Sad people look at things on page one, and sad people are still looking at things on page twenty. Also, Raymond Carver sort of nailed “The Sad Garage Sale” with “Why Don’t You Dance?” So you’re competing with him as well as the other stories in the slush pile.
2. “[Insert Character Name] is Sick”
These stories usually involve a middle-aged person visiting an elderly parent in a nursing home or hospital, though variations include parents visiting sick children and spouses visiting sick partners. I would never reject a story simply because it’s set in a nursing home or hospital (both have so much potential for comedy, tragedy, and everything in between); however, “[Insert Character Name] is Sick” stories, much like “The Sad Garage Sale” stories, too often cede too much of their emotional appeal to the situation, at the expense of the characters and plot. In fact, these stories are often virtually plotless, with the protagonist simply sitting beside the sickbed and reminiscing about good or bad times with [Character Name].
3. “Scholars Misbehaving”
These stories follow a) precarious graduate students or b) disillusioned professors as they indulge in various intoxicants and engage in ill-advised affairs with a) precarious undergraduates or b) precarious graduate students, respectively. The prevalence of “Scholars Misbehaving” stories is perhaps an inevitable side effect of the number of contemporary writers who have been through the academy (and can’t seem to keep their pants on), but these stories tend to suffer from two major shortcomings. First, they’re often packed with dense, sometimes esoteric, passages about the main character’s academic pursuits. Reading Chaucer can make for a pleasant evening. Reading about a character who’s reading (and hyper-analyzing) Chaucer…not so much. Second, these stories frequently start with depression and go downhill from there. Too often, the protagonists in “Scholars Misbehaving” stories simply aren’t sympathetic. They’re characterized by little more than their status as misbehaving scholars, and so much of the space that could be devoted to what might make these characters unique and interesting is devoted instead to the aforementioned academic passages that clog up the story and slow down the narrative.
I hope this gives you a better sense of the kinds of stories that fail to catch my attention and fail to make it beyond the slush. I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from sending us stories that deal with these subjects, but I do want you to be aware that these kinds of stories have to do a bit more than others to make it out of the slush. So if your protagonist is an alcoholic professor selling her cheating husband’s golf clubs while awaiting the arrival of her precarious graduate student lover who’s returning from a depressing visit to a nursing home, well…actually, that could be awesome.